Miami Gardens, Fla. — From a protest in the spring to travel woes in the fall, Oklahoma coped with plenty of distractions on its way to the Orange Bowl.
Clemson might ask for a few pointers.
The top-ranked Tigers (13-0) were dealing with the suspension of three players for violating unspecified team rules as they prepared to face the No. 4 Sooners (11-1) in the national semifinals matchup today.
While none was a starter, it was still an unwanted annoyance on the eve of the game in balmy south Florida.
The one who won’t be easy to replace is speedy receiver Deon Cain, who averaged a team-leading 17.1 yards per catch. Kicker Ammon Lakip and tight end Jay Jay McCullough also were sent home.
Oklahoma has dealt with its own issues, actually going all the way back to a meeting between these same teams more than a year ago in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Tigers blew out the Sooners, 40-6, raising doubts about the direction of the program under longtime coach Bob Stoops.
Well, look where the Sooners are now — two victories away from their first national title since 2000.
“We’ve got a strong program,” Stoops said Wednesday. “It wasn’t nearly as weak as people wanted to say it was a year ago.”
Since then, Oklahoma has grown even stronger.
When a racist video shot by members of a campus fraternity went viral during spring practice, the Sooners shut down workouts for several days, held a series of emotionally charged meetings, and wound up marching arm-in-arm in a show of solidarity.
Their bond grew even tighter after an upset loss to rival Texas, followed the next week by a plane issue that kept them stranded at the Oklahoma City airport more than eight hours trying to get to a game at Kansas State.
“We had one conference room,” Stoops remembered. “The offense had a meeting in there to review practice that day, and then defense took their turn in there to watch practice. Then it became the music room. So there were probably 40 of them in there, blaring music and chanting all the words and jumping up and down. I came in with two buckets of chicken, and it went crazy.”
The Sooners haven’t lost since, averaging 52 points over their last seven games.
“It’s been fun,” said Baker Mayfield, who emerged as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks after transferring from Texas Tech.
Clemson, led by Deshaun Watson, comes into the College Football Playoff without having lost once.